Panama Canal Map

It’s Not Magic, It’s Maintenance

The hard-edged outlines of skyscrapers appear slowly out of the pale, low-lying haze as Swell fights the last few upwind miles toward Panama City. My head aches with exhaustion from the prior night’s passage. Heather and I, plus spontaneous additional crew Brad, a surfer friend from back home had battled stiff, shifty headwinds and short seas around the infamous Punta Mala while playing a perverse game of hide-and-seek with the constant stream of supertankers exiting the Panama Canal.

I didn’t shut my eyes all night. A rush of adrenaline kicked in every time we’d spot an approaching tanker. I would squint at the new set of lights on the horizon hoping to make out their course and speed before they were on top of us. The mixed seas and darkness played with my confidence. I woke Heather or Brad several times to confirm whether I was seeing red or green lights to determine whether the ships were going east, west, or coming straight at us. We’d figure it out just in time to tack off, speed up, or slow down so as not to be run over by the enormous steel beasts moving at an unrelenting twenty knots.

Panama Canal Map Location

After catching a dorado, dodging twenty-two ships, making seven tacks, and constantly trimming sails for the shifty winds I’m wrecked. As our projected morning arrival stretches to midday, my lids and limbs grow heavier, but the searing noise of planes and helicopters keeps me alert as the city comes into focus. We wince at the harsh sounds and currents swirling with trash. At last we haul down the sails and nudge Swell in among the 100 or more sailboats packed into the little brown bay at La Playita de Amador, a small island connected to the city by a causeway. Flags from around the world wave at us from the boats Poland, Austria, Germany, Australia, Ecuador, England, France, China, Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand, Hungary. This is the crossroads of east and west, and it’s high season for cruisers, like me, readying to sail toward the South Pacific.

Panama Canal Map Before And After

Our outer island vacation has abruptly ended, and both Heather and Brad have planes to catch. I’m sad to see them go, but I’m feeling the pressure to tackle the repairs and projects that have sprouted like weeds aboard Swell. With its bountiful availability of parts and provisions, Panama City is a perfect place to prepare for my upcoming passage. I’m learning that good preparation means doing everything possible to solve and prevent problems before going to sea. I’ve honed my sailing skills in the nearly 4,000 miles hopping down the coast, but the islands of the Pacific are now calling, and to take on the greatest stretch of open ocean on the planet, Swell must be prepared for anything.

Panama Canal Map Photo Gallery




I transform the cabin into project mode, spreading my tools across the bunk in the main cabin for easy access and starting a frenzy of list-making. I need to install extra water storage in the forepeak, check the rigging, repair my headsail, patch the dinghy, fix the leaky faucet, clean the hull, inventory the food stocks, look over my safety gear, write the next blog update, reply to emails. Neither my outboard nor my generator is working properly. The list makes me swoon, but I indulge myself by buying a wide variety of cheese and chocolates.

Panama Canal Map Activity

“A cinch by the inch,” I tell myself, thinking back to Dad reminding me of my grandma Julia’s saying.

First, I want to install extra freshwater storage to allow me to carry twenty more gallons of emergency water for the passage across the Pacific. I’ve got to be prepared if the watermaker stops working. While thinking my way through how to plumb it into the existing system, I dive under the sink in the head and notice a trickle working its way down the bare fiberglass near the thru-hull for the toilet pump.

Come to think of it, water has been slowly filling the bilge for over a week. I’ve heard the automatic pump working from time to time, but I blamed it on the leaky manual toilet pump that is begging for new O-rings. It’s now obvious that the leak has another source.

So I set the water project aside and spend the rest of the day in the tiny opening under the sink trying to determine the leak’s source. First, I try to tighten all the fittings and reclamp the hose to the barb. What should be a simple process takes hours because of the cramped space. I don’t have the room to get enough leverage to pull, twist, and yank on the various fittings and hoses.

Panama Canal Map Google Earth

By late afternoon I’ve finally retaped and retightened the fitting junctions and connected the hose with an extra clamp. I turn the lever of the valve with anticipation, and drip, drip, drip. I sigh. My spectators under the sink scattered soap bars and toilet paper rolls look on impartially while the leak resumes even more aggressively than before.

That evening, I forgo bathing and clear a place on the cabin sole to lay a cockpit mat among the scattered tools. I dip a spoon into the peanut butter jar, take a bite of cheese, and break off a large square of chocolate, mulling over how to fix that damn leak.

At 8:00 the next morning, I turn on the “cruiser’s net,” which is held over the VHF radio for sailors in the bay to ask each other questions, expose bargains they’ve discovered in the city, and try to sell, trade, or buy things from each other.

While seasoned sailors on the net warn of exorbitant food prices and limited boating supplies in the Pacific, I dive back into the sweaty, dark cave to take everything apart that I had so carefully reassembled the day before. I’ve got to stay positive and try again. I inch my body deeper inside the hole and manage to reach my fingers around the backside of the valve. Ah-ha! I feel a sliver of a crack. Using the vice grip, I carefully turn it around and see a vertical split in the cheap plastic valve where it threads onto the thru-hull.

I chime in on the radio net to ask if anyone knows where I can buy a replacement. A cruiser replies; he has an extra valve on board in bronze and drops it by later in the day, refusing to take a penny for it. He even talks me through the process of installing it.

“You will need to plug the thru-hull from under the hull with a tightly-fitting wooden bung plug,” he explains. “That way the ocean won’t come flooding in while you switch out the cracked valve.”

After half a day of procrastination, I find a proper size plug, fish the hammer out of the tool bag, and shove earplugs deep in both ears. Standing at the rail of Swell’s port side I look down at the murky brown water. Foamy swirls of pollution and rainbows of oil decorate the surface. I sigh and jump, hammer in hand.

Underwater, I feel around for the opening to the thru-hull and pound the plug into the hole, then hurry back on board for a rinse. Back in the compartment, the valve backs easily off the threads while I pray my plug will hold. Not a drop of seawater enters. I wrap the threads in plumber’s tape and screw on the new bronze ball valve, smiling like a hero as I crawl out of the hole.

“I did it! I did it!” I sing, grooving to my own little victory dance.

All that’s left to do is put the hose back on the fitting. I boil up some water and soak the old hose in the pan of hot water to expand it, swab it with grease, and then shove it onto the bronze barb with all my strength. The hose stiffly refuses to slip over the lip of the fitting. I push and pull and twist it with every last drop of my strength, begging and fighting to get it on, but it doesn’t cooperate.

After two more rounds of hot water and wrestling, I accept defeat. I had celebrated too early. The sun is setting. I’m dirty and exhausted. My tough, self-sufficient outlook crumbles as Dad’s famous words ring through my head, “Sometimes there’s no replacement for brute strength.” I sigh and push the tools aside to make room for a cockpit cushion once more, curl up despondently with my pillow, and wonder who on Earth I can beg to crawl in that hole and help me?

The next morning, I decide to head for the Honda dealership in the city with my broken portable generator. Public transportation is cheap but frightening. The Red Devil buses hug corners like they’re in the Indy 500 and taxi drivers use their horns in place of their brakes. Nothing short of a miracle finds me safely at my destination, and, to my relief, they fix the minor glitch in no time. Back at the dock, I load the generator into the dinghy, and pull the outboard starting cord. I pull again, and again. Nothing. I pump the fuel ball, check the air valve, pull the choke. She won’t go.

“You too?” I say to the motor, rolling my eyes. I let it sit for a few minutes, then pull a few more futile times. A young guy appears with a group of charter tourists and they load into the dinghy beside me.

“iTodo bien?” (All good?) he asks before they pull away.

“No funciona el motor” (The motor isn’t working), I reply feebly.

“Espera. Vuelvopronto.” (Wait. I’ll be back soon.)

When he returns, he ties my bowline to the back of his dinghy, and drags me out through the obstacle course of sailboats back to Swell.

“I’m Marcos,” he says, while tying my line to Swell’s stern.

“I’m Liz. Thank you again for the tow.”

“Any interest in selling that outboard?” he asks, pointing to a little backup Nissan outboard my Dad had given me before leaving. It had clung to Swell’s stern rail all the way from California without a single use.

“Yeah, sure. If you can give me a hand with a little project, the outboard is yours.”

“Deal.” He smiles.

Marcos arrives on the scene a couple days later and quickly wins the battle with the hose under the sink. He offers to help with anything else I need, bringing a gust of progress to the stagnating half-finished jobs. He’s a sweet Colombian guy in his early twenties, who captains local charter boats and seems to break all the Latin male stereotypes. He’s soft spoken, thoughtful, uncannily chivalrous and clearly skilled aboard boats. Before lunchtime he helps me complete the plumbing puzzle for the water bladder installation and solves the outboard mystery with a few quick tweaks to the carburetor. I breathe a sigh of relief as boxes on the lists are ticked off right and left.

I thank Marcos for his help and assure him I can take it from here, but he’s in no hurry to leave. So I pull off the engine cover because the oil needs changing. He pokes around the engine while I suck the old oil out with my drill pump.

Suddenly he looks up at me gravely, “Your motor mount, esta roto!” (it’s broken!)

“No.” I shake my head stubbornly. “It can’t be!”

He guides my hand to the rear of the motor, running my fingers lightly across the severed mount’s jagged steel. I scrunch my face in disappointment. This means a whole new project, a major one, and I fret about my schedule and my new crew girlfriends Kemi and McKenzie who are already waiting on me to have Swell ready.

“Mira (Look), the one on the other side is the same,” he adds. I’m stunned.

“Don’t worry, I can help.”

Over the next two weeks, Marcos stops by to lend a hand when his other jobs allow. We devise a pulley system from the boom to lift the motor enough to remove the broken mounts. Each time I hit a roadblock he has a solution. He’s confident and resourceful. I think he likes me, but I dare not go there. His calm, angelic aura makes my inner turbulence all too clear. He needs someone less complicated, plus I’m not looking for permanence; it’s been too much fun feeling free and mingling with anyone I please. I can tell he understands. Not once has he pushed the subject.

Between projects, I catch up on emails, writing obligations, and other Internet chores at the TGI Fridays on the far end of the causeway. They offer free Internet and a cheap lunch special that includes dessert. Sometimes I order an extra fudge brownie sundae to ease my stress.

Although my letters to Barry and website updates are all about the fun surprises and many sea miles I have logged, a great portion of my voyage has been awash in exhausting schedules and daunting expectations I’ve placed on myself. My spare time is spent writing blogs, replying to emails, and contacting magazines and potential sponsors. The hard work has paid off with a handful of features in major publications, and now both a surf forecasting site and a surfing magazine are publishing my updates. I was even named one of five of Surfing Magazine’s “World’s Most Committed Surfers.” In spite of what seems like significant marketing successes for my supporting companies, one day while sitting in the shiny red booth, I open an email from my only financial sponsor, explaining that they are cutting back their marketing funds. They have no budget for my voyage in the coming fiscal year. I’m gutted. The thought of soliciting a new sponsor on top of everything else bursts my stress capacity.

“How will I get by? I can’t manage all of this!” I lay my head on the table beside my turkey sandwich as my mind spins anxiously. I’m sure Barry would help, but I refuse to ask. The deal was that after leaving, I would figure out my own finances.

When I can’t possibly drink another soda water refill or hear another B-52’s song, I kick my way back toward Playita de Amador on my skateboard under the orange streetlights of the causeway, gazing at the city skyline to the south. I find stairs to bump down or slopes to trim across while the north wind blows in my hair a desperate attempt to mold my current reality into something like wave-riding after two months without surfing or even swimming.

By the end of the month, I’ve accumulated enough hours at TGI Fridays to get paid overtime, although I still hadn’t come up with a way to earn a little money. Marcos and I wrap up the final projects. Along with the outboard, I offer up cash and anything else I think he might need, but he refuses everything but the outboard.

“No. No, thank you, Liz. I just wanted to help you toward your dream. I dream of sailing to the South Pacific too one day, but now is not my time. It’s yours.” My new crew, Kemi and McKenzie, return from their overland surf excursions, sun-kissed and brimming with stories of surf and adventure. Both diehard surfers and seasoned travelers, they had no trouble being flexible to give me the time I needed to deal with the explosion of projects and preparation.

After several provisioning runs, Marcos drives us all up to the tourist viewing point of the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks to marvel at this unbelievable engineering feat. A man’s voice pours out of a loudspeaker with dates and facts about the Canal as tourists gather to witness the massive locks opening. After describing all that goes into keeping the Panama Canal functioning, the man announces, “You see, folks. It’s not magic, it’s maintenance!”

I smile to myself as the locks open for a transiting ship I can relate!

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